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Egyptian women fear return of frequent harassment and assault

For a moment, it seemed Egypt wasn't just throwing off its political shackles. Women long suffering from the scourge of sexual harassment reported Cairo's Tahrir Square, command central of the uprising, had become a safe zone free of the groping and leering common in their country.

Now the attack on a senior U.S. television correspondent during the final night of the 18-day revolt has shown that the threat of violence against women in Egypt remains very real.

CBS has said its chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, went through a "brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating" by a frenzied mob in the square during Friday's celebrations of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

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Ms. Logan was released from a U.S. hospital and was recovering Wednesday in her Washington-area home, as her story raised issues often left unaddressed in the Middle East.

The night that she was assaulted, the nature of the crowd in Tahrir changed.

While only the most dedicated had turned up in the preceding 18 days - overcoming fear of arrest and bound by the shared goal of bringing down Mubarak - hundreds of thousands from all parts of Cairo flooded the downtown area to celebrate the president's downfall.

In some areas, men formed human chains, cordoning off groups of women and children from pushing hordes. But it wasn't enough protection, and women reported later that they were sexually harassed - stared at, shouted at and groped - that night.

"All the men were very respectful during the revolution," said Nawla Darwiche, an Egyptian feminist. "Sexual harassment didn't occur during the revolt. It occurred during that night. I was personally harassed that night."

During the uprising, women say they briefly experienced a "new Egypt," with strict social customs casually cast aside - at least among the protesters.

Young women in jeans and tight shirts smoked in public, standing next to bearded Islamists who didn't bat an eye.

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Women who said they had never slept away from home before were spending nights in tents pitched in the centre of the square, as protesters tried to maintain control of the strategic location. The women said at the time they felt perfectly safe, even bringing their children.

Egyptian women's rights campaigners now worry that the reprieve they experienced during the uprising was a fluke, and that their society will quickly revert to oppressive social mores that leave women vulnerable to sexual violence, with little recourse.

Women in Egypt - and in many areas of the Arab world - are still afraid to report sexual assault or harassment, fearing they and their families will be stigmatized, said Medine Ebeid of Egypt's New Woman Foundation.

Only rarely do women come forward. In a widely publicized 2008 case, a woman dragged her assailant to a police station, and succeeded in sending him to jail for three years.

The killing of women by male relatives for perceived violations of a strict moral code are often either covered up by the families or the assailants, if prosecuted, face light sentences.

Sexual harassment remains widespread in Egypt, and even women covered up by veils and long robes in strict Islamic dress say they are not immune.

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A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights found that 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women in Cairo said they had been harassed - while 62 per cent of men admitted to harassing.

Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game. Widespread unemployment leaves young men bored, frustrated and unable to marry.

Associated Press

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